Cheap FPGA Board Roundup

There’s never been a better time to get into using FPGAs. Nearly all vendors have some level of free software and while boards haven’t gotten as cheap as ones with microcontrollers, the prices are way down. [Joel Williams] was frustrated when his board of choice became unavailable, so he decided to compile data on as many cheap boards as he could.

[Joel] covers the major vendors like Intel and Altera. But he also includes information on Actel, Cypress, and Lattice. While the list probably isn’t comprehensive, it is a lot of information about many popular boards. The notes are helpful and point out oddities about the boards in many cases.

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What Will You Do If WWVB Goes Silent?

Buried on page 25 of the 2019 budget proposal for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), under the heading “Fundamental Measurement, Quantum Science, and Measurement Dissemination”, there’s a short entry that has caused plenty of debate and even a fair deal of anger among those in the amateur radio scene:

NIST will discontinue the dissemination of the U.S. time and frequency via the NIST radio stations in Hawaii and Ft. Collins, CO. These radio stations transmit signals that are used to synchronize consumer electronic products like wall clocks, clock radios, and wristwatches, and may be used in other applications like appliances, cameras, and irrigation controllers.

The NIST stations in Hawaii and Colorado are the home of WWV, WWVH, and WWVB. The oldest of these stations, WWV, has been broadcasting in some form or another since 1920; making it the longest continually operating radio station in the United States. Yet in order to save approximately $6.3 million, these time and frequency standard stations are potentially on the chopping block.

What does that mean for those who don’t live and breathe radio? The loss of WWV and WWVH is probably a non-event for anyone outside of the amateur radio world. In fact, most people probably don’t know they even exist. Today they’re primarily used as frequency standards for calibration purposes, but in recent years have been largely supplanted by low-cost oscillators.

But WWVB on the other hand is used by millions of Americans every day. By NIST’s own estimates, over 50 million timepieces of some form or another automatically synchronize their time using the digital signal that’s been broadcast since 1963. Therein lies the debate: many simply don’t believe that NIST is going to shut down a service that’s still actively being used by so many average Americans.

The problem lies with the ambiguity of the statement. That the older and largely obsolete stations will be shuttered is really no surprise, but because the NIST budget doesn’t specifically state whether or not the more modern WWVB is also included, there’s room for interpretation. Especially since WWVB and WWV are both broadcast from Ft. Collins, Colorado.

What say the good readers of Hackaday? Do you think NIST is going to take down the relatively popular WWVB? Are you still using devices that sync to WWVB, or have they all moved over to pulling their time down over the Internet? If WWVB does go off the air, are you prepared to setup your own pirate time station?

[Thanks to AG6QR for the tip.]

OMEN Alpha: A DIY 8085-Based Computer

[Martin Malý] has put together a sweet little 8085-based single board computer called OMEN. He needed a simple one for educational purposes, and judging by the schematic we think he’s succeeded.

Now in its fourth iteration, it has a 32K EEPROM, 32K of memory, one serial and three parallel ports. In the ROM he’s put Tiny BASIC and Dave Dunfield’s MON85 Serial Monitor with Roman Borik’s improvements. His early demos include the obligatory blinking LED, playing 8-bit music to a speaker, and also a 7-segment LED display with a hexadecimal keyboard. There is also a system connector which allows you to connect a keyboard, a display, and other peripherals. Of course, you can connect serially at up to 115200 baud, making it very easy to compile some assembly on a PC and use the monitor to paste the hex into the board’s memory and run it. Or you can just jump into the Tiny BASIC interpreter and have some nostalgic fun. He demos all this in the video below.

He’s given enough detail for you to make your own and he also has the boards available in kit form on Tindie for a very reasonable price. With some minimal soldering skills, you can be back in the ’80s in no time.

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Simple ESP8266 Weather Station using Blynk

Today’s hacker finds themself in a very interesting moment in time. The availability of powerful microcontrollers and standardized sensor modules is such that assembling the hardware for something like an Internet-connected environmental monitor is about as complex as building with LEGO. Hardware has become elementary in many cases, leaving software as the weak link. It’s easy to build the sensor node to collect the data, but how do you display it in a useful and appealing way?

This simple indoor temperature and humidity sensor put together by [Shyam Ravi] shows one possible solution to the problem using Blynk. In the video after the break, he first walks you through wiring the demonstration hardware, and then moves on to creating the Blynk interface. While it might not be the ideal solution for all applications, it does show you how quickly you can go from a handful of components on the bench to displaying useful data.

In addition to the NodeMCU board, [Shyam] adds a DHT11 sensor and SSD1306 OLED display. He’s provided a wiring diagram in the repository along with the Arduino code for the ESP8266, but the hardware side of this demonstration really isn’t that important. You could omit the OLED or switch over to something like a BME280 sensor if you wanted to. The real trick is in the software.

For readers who haven’t played with it before, Blynk is a service that allows you to create GUIs to interact with microcontrollers from anywhere in the world. The code provided by [Shyam] reads the humidity and temperature data from the DHT11 sensor, and “writes” it to the Blynk service. From within the application, you can then visualize that data in a number of ways using the simple drag-and-drop interface.

We’ve seen Blynk and ESP8266 used to control everything from mood lighting to clearance-rack robotic toys. It’s a powerful combination, and something to keep in mind next time you need to knock something together in short order.

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Rewinding Live Radio

Even though it’s now a forgotten afterthought in the history of broadcasting technology, we often forget how innovative the TiVo was. All this set-top box did was connect a hard drive to a cable box, but the power was incredible: you could pause live TV. You could record shows. You could rewind TV. It was an incredible capability, that no one had ever seen before. Of course, between Amazon and Netflix and YouTube, no one watches TV anymore, and all those platforms have a pause button, but the TiVO was awesome.

There is one bit of broadcasting that still exists. Radio. For his Hackaday Prize entry, [MagicWolfi] is bringing the set-top box to radio. He’s invented the Radio Rewind Button, and it does exactly what you would expect: it rewinds live radio a few minutes.

To have a pause or rewind button on a TV or radio, the only real requirement is a bunch of memory. The TiVO did this with a hard drive, and [MagicWolfi] is doing this with 256 MB of SDRAM. That means he needs to access a ton of RAM, and for that he’s turning to the Digilent ARTY S7 board. Yes, it’s an FPGA, but actually a fairly simple solution to the problem.

The rest of the circuit is an FM receiver chip and an I2S audio codec on an Arduino-shaped daughterboard. The main controller for this project is a big red button that will simply rewind the audio stream a few minutes. There’s no telling exactly how long [MagicWolfi] will be able to rewind the audio stream, but 256 MB is a ton in the audio world.

The Forgotten Art of Riveted Structures

If you are in the habit of seeking out abandoned railways, you may have stood in the shadow of more than one Victorian iron bridge. Massive in construction, these structures have proved to be extremely robust, with many of them still in excellent condition even after years of neglect.

A handsome riveted railway bridge, over the River Avon near Stratford-upon-Avon, UK.
A handsome riveted railway bridge, over the River Avon near Stratford-upon-Avon, UK.

When you examine them closely, an immediate difference emerges between them and any modern counterparts, unlike almost all similar metalwork created today they contain no welded joints. Arc welders like reliable electrical supplies were many decades away when they were constructed, so instead they are held together with hundreds of massive rivets. They would have been prefabricated in sections and transported to the site, where they would have been assembled by a riveting gang with a portable forge.

 

So for an audience in 2018, what is a rivet? If you’ve immediately thought of a pop rivet then it shares the function of joining two sheets of material by pulling them tightly together, but differs completely in its construction. These rivets start life as pieces of steel bar formed into pins with one end formed into a mushroom-style dome, probably in a hot drop-forging process.

A rivet is heated to red-hot, then placed through pre-aligned holes in the sheets to be joined, and its straight end is hammered to a mushroom shape to match the domed end. The rivet then cools down and contracts, putting it under tension and drawing the two sheets together very tightly. Tightly enough in fact that it can form a seal against water or high-pressure steam, as shown by iron rivets being used in the construction of ships, or high-pressure boilers. How is this possible? Let’s take a look!

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Badgelife, The Hardware Demoscene Documentary

Last week, tens of thousands of people headed home from Vegas, fresh out of this year’s DEF CON. This was a great year for DEF CON, especially when it comes to hardware. This was the year independent badges took over, thanks to a small community of people dedicated to creating small-run hardware, puzzles, and PCB art for thousands of conference-goers. This is badgelife, a demoscene of hardware, and this is just the beginning. It’s only going to get bigger from here on out.

We were lucky enough to sit down with a few of the creators behind the badges of this year’s DEF CON and the interviews were fantastic. Right here is a lesson on electronic design, manufacturing, and logistics. If you’ve ever wanted to be an engineer that ships a product instead of a lowly maker that ships a product, this is the greatest classroom in the world.

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